Breaking Down The Hero's Journey Plot Structure (tips for fantasy & sci-fi writers)
Hello there, writers!
Today, I am so excited to talk about one of my favorite writing topics: plot structure. Now I know that probably doesn't sound all that exciting, but if there's anything that's truly going to set you up for success–especially when it comes time to edit–it's this.
So if you often have problems with plot holes and pacing issues, plot structure is going to be your saving grace.
Today in particular, we're going to talk about the plot structure I use most often in my own writing: The Hero's Journey. This plot structure, outlined by Joseph Campbell and well-loved in both literature and film, is a classic used most often in fantasy and science fiction.
Examples of works that use The Hero's Journey plot structure include Star Wars, the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Ender's Game and more!
Now before we dive in, it's important to note that The Hero's Journey plot structure usually goes hand-in-hand with the Chosen One trope. What is a trope, you ask? It's an overused plot device or character archetype...but tropes don't necessarily have to be a bad thing.
To use the Chosen One trope well, you simply need you to give it a fresh and exciting spin.
The Chosen One trope in particular features a character of absolute vital importance to the fate of a people group or nation. This character usually has some sort of unique power, skill, or ability beyond that of average men, and it's this feature that makes them so important to the story.
When you consider the Chosen One trope, you probably think of characters like:
- Luke Skywalker, who had the Force on his side and used it to save the universe in Star Wars.
- Katniss Everdeen, whose archery skills and uncommon compassion made her the perfect hero in The Hunger Games.
- Aragorn, whose destiny as a descendant of Isildur led him to join the fellowship, fight to save Middle-Earth, and eventually claim the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings.
The cool thing about The Hero's Journey plot structure is that it's built around the actions of its hero–who usually fits into the Chosen One trope quite well. This allows you to create a plot that is truly driven by your hero, making for one exciting and gripping read.
Are you working on your very own fantasy or science-fiction novel? Perfect! Let's break down The Hero's Journey step by step...
An Introduction to The Hero's Journey
Before we break down The Hero's Journey in depth, let's talk about the two essential functions of this particular plot structure.
First, you need to know that The Hero's Journey runs on a circular story structure. Your hero is going on a journey here, and it's a journey that comes full circle. This means they'll end up right where they started–only they'll be a different person because of the journey they've experienced.
The second thing you need to know is that The Hero's Journey is based on the concept of known and unknown worlds. In other words, the story begins with the hero in their normal world–a place they've long since come to know well.
Early in the story, your hero is going to receive a Call to Adventure that carries them into an unknown world–a world that is entirely out of their comfort zone. It's only after they've achieved their goal and defeated the villain that they'll complete their journey and return to their known world.
When you consider both of these functions of The Hero's Journey, you realize just how much this plot structure is all about the transformation of your hero. So if you aren't prepared to develop your hero throughout the story, to really see them become a whole new person, then this probably isn't the right plot structure for you.
That said, if you are all about the transformation of your main character, as well as the crazy action and adventure they experience during their journey, then The Hero's Journey is definitely a plot structure worth exploring. In fact, I think you'll love it!
So, without any further, ado, let's get started. It's time to break down what The Hero's Journey is all about in depth. Ready to get started?
Let's begin with the first half of The Hero's Journey...
Psst...Important Note: If you research this plot structure online, you may find several small differences in the way it's set up. Some versions of this plot structure are more detailed while others offer a more simple approach, such as the simplified explanation of The Hero's Journey you see in my blog post on 3 Bestselling Plot Structures.
That said, there's really no wrong way to utilize The Hero's Journey, no matter what version you're using when plotting your story.
So what happens in the first half of The Hero's Journey? Let's break it down:
Introduction. The very first thing you're going to tackle in The Hero's Journey is the introduction of the hero themselves, as well as an introduction into their Known World.
This introduction is usually short, only a chapter or two, though it can be longer if necessary. In it, readers should get a glimpse of the hero living their normal lives–lives that they are most often a little unsatisfied with.
This is important because readers need to have a firm understanding of who the hero is before they ever get called into a life-changing adventure.
Call to Adventure. The next element in the first half of The Hero's Journey is the Call to Adventure. This is literally when someone or something comes along and encourages the hero to take part in an adventure outside of their Known World.
For example, in The Hobbit, Gandalf comes to Hobbiton and invites Bilbo on a journey to help the dwarves reclaim their homeland.
In many instances, the Call to Adventure is initially declined by the hero. Usually, the hero has some sort of fear of going into the Unknown World, or they view themselves as too unskilled for the adventure they've been called too.
Supernatural Aid. Oftentimes, when the hero views themselves as unworthy and declines their Call, it takes some sort of Supernatural interference for them to change their minds and accept it.
In some cases, this is a good supernatural influence, such as Gandalf's involvement in encouraging Frodo to take the Ring to Rivendell. In other instances, it takes a terrible supernatural act, usually resulting in the injury or death of a hero's loved one, to force them into action.
You see this happen when Luke Skywalker hesitates to leave his aunt and uncle's home on Tatooine. It's only when they die at the hands of the enemy that Luke accepts his Call and joins Obi-Wan Kenobi in an adventure outside of his home planet.
That said, there are also cases where the hero eventually chooses to answer the Call after nothing more than a little reconsideration, though this is rare.
Acceptance of Call. The Acceptance of the Call usually goes hand-in-hand with the Supernatural Aid we talked about above. When the hero answers their Call, they're force to face the Threshold.
The Threshold is an important element in The Hero's Journey. Think of it as a door between worlds–the Known World full of safety and stability and the Unknown World full of adventure, but also danger.
Sometimes, the Threshold is literally a door your hero has to walk through or a homeland your hero must leave. In other cases, the hero must take a specific action or defeat a minor threat in order to cross into the Unknown World.
For example, in Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, Clary Fray must fight and kill a demon before Jase–a Supernatural force–takes her back to the Institute and introduces her to an Unknown World full of Shadowhunters.
Rising Action. After entering the Unknown World, the hero goes through a series of actions that move them closer toward achieving their goal. However, they also encounter danger in the form of the story's villain or his minions.
At this point, the hero does little to fight back against the villain. They take the blows and try to get back on their feet, but they don't chase the villain down or try to destroy them. The hero simply wants to reach their goal with as little conflict as possible. And so they remain reactive.
Throughout the rising action, your hero will have a series of helpers–characters who aid the hero in their journey by offering direction, resources, or mentorship.
Think of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings or Han Solo, Princess Leia, and the droids in Star Wars.
As the rising action continues, the hero is likely to become a little bit more offensive in their actions. As they gain confidence and begin to become a new person, they may take stronger action to defeat the villain and see their story goal through.
But they aren't truly offensive just yet. First, they must face the Death and Rebirth Cycle, where their whole life is going to change…
Exploring the Death & Rebirth Cycle
With the first half of The Hero's Journey through, it's time to look at one of the most pivotal moments your hero will face: the Death and Rebirth Cycle.
This experience occurs anywhere from halfway to two-thirds of the way through your hero's adventure, and it's a moment that will change who they are forever.
The first thing to note about the Death and Rebirth Cycle is that it takes place in an abyss. In other words, the hero has never run across something so dark and terrifying as the unknown situation they're about to face.
Secondly, the Death and Rebirth Cycle does not have to be a literal death and rebirth (though it certainly can be). In most cases, it's simply a momentous challenge and revelation that forever changes who your hero is–essentially killing off their old selves and introducing them as someone new.
This challenge and revelation leads the hero to understand some sort of ultimate truth about the world or about themselves. Oftentimes, this means the hero must face and overcome the flaw that holds them back from defeating the villain and finally achieving their story goal.
Other times, the Death and Rebirth Cycle sees your hero actually facing down the villain in a life-or-death situation that leads to the villain's defeat, though this traditional climactic moment may come later in some Hero's Journey stories (we'll talk more about that in the next section).
Need an example of the Death and Rebirth Cycle?
In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta kill the last remaining tribute, only to discover that the Game-Makers are not satisfied. They are faced with a life-or-death choice: choose which one of them will die or choose to die together.
This instance radically changes Katniss and Peeta, altering their understanding of each other and revealing the true terror of the Capitol and President Snow.
It's important to emphasize just how much the Death and Rebirth Cycle radical transforms the hero. They are no longer the person they were when their journey began. They have been shaped and molded into someone new, and even if they wanted to go back to the person they were before, it's simply too late.
You see this happen in Star Wars. To help Luke rescue Princess Leia, Obi Wan distracts Darth Vader by engaging him in a light saber duel. Seeing that Luke has been successful, Obi Wan fulfill's his destiny and allows Darth Vader to kill him. Luke witnesses Obi Wan's death, an act that forever changes his worldview and commits him to the Rebel cause.
The hero may be forever changed, but their journey isn't over yet. They still need to make their way back to their Known World–and some may still need to defeat the villain! Let's take a look at what happens in your hero's journey towards home:
Atonement. Before the hero can re-enter their Known World, they must first atone for their wrongdoing and the hurts they have caused on their Journey.
Remember that flaw we talked about in the Death and Rebirth Cycle? That same flaw is the thing that caused your hero to hurt themselves and others on their journey. Now that they've overcome this flaw, it's time to make amends.
You see this happen in the third Hunger Games book. When the war against the Capitol is over, Katniss and her people must vote on a new president and decide what is to be done about President Snow. In the end, Katniss atones for the death of her sister and other innocents by preventing the new villain from ever taking power.
If your hero has yet to defeat the villain, this is when that traditional climactic scene will take place. Oftentimes, it's a hero's flaw that prevents them from taking serious action against the villain–allowing the villain to hurt those they love.
Now that the hero has overcome their flaw, part of atoning for their wrongdoing is taking down the villain once and for all.
Crossing the Threshold. Now that the hero has atoned for their wrongs, it's time for them to return to their Known World. This brings them back to the same Threshold they originally crossed to take part in their adventure in the first place.
You see this Crossing the Threshold moment occur in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the four Pevensie siblings, now grown up and ruling Narnia as kings and queens, go on a hunt and rediscover the Wardrobe that led them to Narnia in the first place.
Reward. Either as they cross the Threshold or immediately following their return, the hero receives some sort of extraordinary or supernatural gift. This Reward moment is often called The Gift of the Goddess, but it certainly doesn't have to be a gift from an actual goddess.
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie siblings receive supernatural renewed youth when they cross the Threshold and fall through the wardrobe.
Another example would be the extraordinary wealth that Bilbo receives as his reward for helping the dwarves regain their homeland, as well as the Ring he manages to keep with him as he returns to the Shire.
Return to Normal. The hero has returned to their Known World at last, but things are not always as they seem. Now that the hero has undergone a radical transformation, it's hard for them to see their Known World in the same light. They must now forge a New Normal for themselves.
On occasion, this New Normal requires them to leave the world they've always known to start fresh, or even to integrate into the Unknown World and make it their own.
This is the case in City of Bones, when Clary doesn't actually return to the simplicity of the life she knew before discovering the Shadow World, but instead assimilates to the Shadowhunter lifestyle.
This can also be seen in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo cannot stay in the Shire for the pain it causes him. Instead of assimilating to life somewhere else in Middle-Earth, he chooses to take a ship west from the Grey Havens.
The Hero's Journey then ends with the hero in their New Normal, hopefully living as happily as can be–though fantasy and sci-fi do tend to be notorious for bittersweet endings, don't they?
Isn't The Hero's Journey an amazing plot structure?
As evidenced by the many examples I used today, utilizing The Hero's Journey to forge a plot for your own novel is a great way to create an epic story that readers won't soon forget. And as an added bonus, you can totally use this structure to write both standalone novels and book series.
I highly recommend studying The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars if you're looking to understand how to use this structure to build a trilogy. Both are excellent examples of a series-long Hero's Journey structure laid out and executed masterfully.
(Psst...Pin the image above or click on it to download the cheatsheet–no email required!)
Have you ever used The Hero's Journey in your own writing? How have you enjoyed the process of plotting according to this structure? Where have you seen The Hero's Journey used in some of your favorite books and movies?
Shout out in the comments below. I can't wait to hear your stories!